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The world is a dangerous place. Car accidents, condo collapses, heat domes, and hurricanes seem to be happening more and more these days. Many of us escape the madness by heading into the wilderness. But there are risks there, too. Dehydration, avalanches, wildfires, rabid squirrels. The list is long.
But when you ask people what they’re most afraid of when they’re getting in touch with nature, the answer is usually bears. And why not? Bears are ferocious. Claws. Jaws. Muscles. Speed. Intelligence. Curiosity. Insatiable appetites. Violent guardians of their cubs.
Is the clear blue mountain sky and the sweet smell of fresh pine worth the risk of being eaten alive by a grizzly? Well, no. But what if I told you there was a way to avoid this violent and untimely death and that it was as easy as strapping a ten-ounce canister of spray to your belt? Read on, and I’ll tell you everything you need to know about the simplest of life-saving devices.
Quick Answer: The Best Sprays Against Bears
How Likely Is It That You Will See a Bear?
Whether you see a bear depends on where you are. There are over 300,000 black bears in the United States. That’s a lot! How have I never seen one in my Walmart parking lot, you ask? Well, if you live in Texas or anywhere else in the south, chances are slim. If you live in Colorado or Oregon or Maine, there’s a good chance you’ve seen one out the window of your car while driving up a mountain road, maybe even on a hike if you were lucky. Bears obviously thrive in states with healthy forests and expansive mountain ranges, so if you live in Nebraska or Iowa, go to the zoo. If you live in Alaska, you should be writing this article.
When it comes to grizzly bears, the numbers are much lower. In Alaska, there are 30,000. But in the lower forty-eight states, there are only 1,500, and 1,000 of them are in northwest Montana. So if you’re not hiking in Alaska and you’re not hiking anywhere near Montana, the chances of encountering a grizzly are almost zero. So why’s everyone freaking out about that weekend camping trip coming up on the Lost Coast in Norcal?
All Bears Are Dangerous
Everyone knows grizzlies are dangerous, especially when you learn their Latin name (ursus arctos horribilis). But what about black bears, those little cuddle bugs hanging on the branch, stealing picnic baskets and whatnot? Well, the truth is, they’re not much of a threat, especially if you’re a smart camper. Proper food storage is key to keeping bears away, and hiking in a noisy group or talking to yourself while you hike alone is a huge deterrent. Bears have learned from millions of years of evolution that back in the days of saber-toothed tigers and the giant short-faced bear (which stood 12 feet tall and was highly carnivorous) running away from any threat was smarter than confronting it, so they continue this practice and only engage with humans when there’s a cooler full of meat left on the picnic table or you stumble across a mama’s cub. But just because they aren’t much of a threat to humans doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous; they are wild animals, after all.
What to Do When You Encounter a Bear
Run! You’re so fast and in such great hiking condition that at the first sight of a bear, you should just bolt and leave it in your dust. To be clear, when I say bolt, I mean Usain Bolt, the fastest human ever, who was clocked at almost 28 mph in a 100-meter race. Bears can only run 35 mph for only two miles at a time. Wait, what? Do. Not. Run.
Make as much noise as possible. Yell. Scream. Screech. Sing death metal. Wail. Bang pots and pans. Throw rocks and sticks. Do whatever it takes to scare that bear back into hibernation. If that doesn’t work and the bear keeps coming, stand your ground, look as big as possible, keep yelling, and if you have bear spray (which you will after reading this article), pull that baby out.
What to Do if a Bear Attacks
This is, of course, assuming you don’t finish reading this article and you still think bear spray is for wussies. What to do during an attack depends on what type of bear is attacking you. If it’s a black bear, fight. Go for the eyes and nose. Stay away from the claws. If it’s a grizzly (look for the hump on its back), tuck into the smallest ball possible (think fetal position), and try to protect your head, neck, and stomach, and pray to any god or dead relative you can think of. Playing dead will remove the threat (you, unlucky hiker) to the grizzly and her cubs, and the grizzly will hopefully leave you alone. If it’s a polar bear, well, try to avoid polar bears because there’s no dead uncle with enough pull to get you out of that one.
What About a Gun?
Easy there, John Wick. Bear attacks happen quickly, and unless you’re an Army Ranger on leave, you’re not getting that high caliber rifle off your back and aimed in the right spot before that bear is on top of you gnawing on your knock-off green beret. Sorry to break it to you. But if you do by chance get that miracle shot off and take down that mama grizzly protecting her cubs, well, you, my friend, have just killed an animal protected under the Endangered Species Act and you will have some explaining to do. It’s a better idea to go the non-lethal route for protection.
Best Protection From Bears
So what is the best protection against a bear attack? Bear spray, obviously! The whole point of this article is to educate you on the effectiveness of bear spray and why you should always have it strapped to your hip or chest when you’re hiking in bear country. So when it comes to a gun vs. bear spray, trade the .50 caliber for the $50 hot chili spray. You’ll be saving two lives: yours, and that cuddle bug you grazed in the foot.
What’s in Bear Spray?
Bear spray is an aerosol spray made from oleoresin capsicum (OC), which is the active component of chili peppers. Mammals, including humans, have a severe reaction in any tissue the irritant comes into contact with, especially the eyes and mucous membranes, leading to temporary blindness and difficulty breathing. So if you’re wondering, “Does bear spray work?”, the answer is yes, if you get that roaring mass of claws and teeth barreling toward you anywhere in the face. Just try not to spray yourself in the process.
Can Bear Spray Kill a Human?
People may wonder if they can use bear spray for self-defense against humans, and if so, will I kill the guy? The answer is that of course you can use bear mace in self-defense and it won’t kill the guy, but it is a little overkill. It’s meant to take down a 600 pound monster, not some dude trying to steal your iPhone, and with an exit velocity of over 70 mph, you can cause permanent damage to that poor, misguided fool. Stick with the regular-sized pepper spray, and stay out of dark alleyways.
How to Use Bear Spray
First things first, always keep the bear spray handy. If it’s buried in the bottom of your bag, you done screwed up. Carry the bear spray on your hip or attached to the shoulder strap of your bag so that it hangs on your chest. Make sure to choose a bear spray with a holster so that attaching it to your belt or bag is idiot-proof.
Most canisters have about six seconds of spray before you’re fighting with your paws, so use those seconds wisely. Shoot the spray with two hands, aim low so as not to send the spray into the tree behind the bear, and pull the trigger in a two-second burst. Don’t empty the whole canister on the first shot, because if you miss entirely, well, lord have mercy. If you get a direct hit, the bear will be temporarily blinded, but don’t celebrate your success, because I did say temporarily. Back up and get out of there as quickly as you can, and keep that bear spray handy, because grizzly bears have been known to resume their anger miles down the trail.
If you want to see a flanneled Canadian demonstrate how to use bear spray, watch the following video. And if you want to skip his terrible rendition of “Roxanne” by the Police, do not watch it until the end.
What Is the Best Bear Spray?
When deciding on the best repellent spray against bears, there are a few things to consider.
1. Reach of Spray
When a bear charges, you want to stop it in its tracks as far away as possible to limit the amount of pee in your pants. Some sprays advertise a 30+ foot range; others, a more modest 12 feet. Go for distance.
2. Amount of Spray
If you’re concerned about weight for your backpacking trip through Glacier National Park, you might opt for the smaller-sized canister, which could have as little as five ounces of spray in it. You will regret this negligible weight-saving decision when you’re empty in two seconds and you’ve hit nothing but the ground with the pepper cloud and the bear is on top of you. Add a few ounces of weight to give yourself a better chance of getting a direct hit and walking out of there alive.
3. Discharge Rate
Some sprays discharge at 70 mph. Others dribble out to give you more time to adjust your aim. Find something in the middle, like two ounces per second. That way, it shows you mean business, but also gives you a chance to gather yourself before you’re empty.
4. Safety Clip
Ironically, bear spray has a scent that may attract bears. Without a safety clip, you may accidentally discharge your spray in your bag or when you’re setting up your tent or when you’re sitting down for a rest. If this happens, bears may come running and you’ll be out of juice. Play it safe, and get a spray with a safety clip.
Like I mentioned earlier, the bear spray is useless if it’s in the bottom of your bag. Attach it to your hip or the shoulder strap of your bag so that it sits on your chest, ready to grab at a moment’s notice. A holster for bear spray makes it a lot easier to secure the spray to your body, and it also gives you a better grip on the slippery canister, especially when your palms are drenched in sweat.
Where to Buy Bear Spray
You can find bear spray for sale at almost any outdoor or hunting store, although the dude at the rifle counter may try to talk you into something else (Ignore him.) REI has a selection, and it is always a good idea to hold the product in your hand before buying it. Of course, there is Amazon, too, but keep in mind that there won’t be overnight shipping because bear spray doesn’t do so well in the bottom of an airplane.
Best Bear Sprays Reviews
Hopefully after this short lesson on the dangers of bears and the simple, non-lethal defense against them, you are now sold on purchasing bear spray for your hiking or backpacking trip this summer. If so, here are the five best bear sprays for hiking in bear country.
1. Counter Assault Bear Deterrent Spray
The Counter Assault Bear Spray delivers a 40-foot spray distance, making it the farthest reach on the market, and with a 10.2 ounce capacity per canister and an eight-second spray duration, you’ll get four two-second burst chances to nail that bear in the nose with the hottest OC formula allowed by law. The Counter Assault Bear Deterrent Spray comes with a holster, so it easily attaches to your belt, and it’s made in Montana, so you know it works against grizzlies. A glow in the dark safety wedge gives you a chance to save yourself even in the middle of the night, and by emitting 91% fewer greenhouse gases than other bear sprays, this is the most environmentally friendly bear spray on the market. It also comes in an 8.1 ounce-sized canister, making the Counter Assault Bear Deterrent Spray the best bear spray for backpacking.
2. Udap Bear Spray
The Udap Bear Spray is 7.9 ounces of the hottest oil-based major capsaicinoids on the market, and with a 30-foot range, you’ll be sure to send any curious bear running for the hills before it can even get a whiff of your trail mix. Created by a grizzly bear attack survivor, the Udap Bear Spray delivers a powerful dispersion in a “shotgun blast” fog pattern, so you don’t necessarily need to get a direct hit for the spray to be effective. It comes with a unique New Griz Guard Holster that clips anywhere and provides silent, easy access to the trigger and also allows for the spray to be discharged without even removing it from the holster.
3. Guard Alaska Bear Spray
Tested for six years in the Alaskan wild, the nine-ounce Guard Alaska Bear Spray delivers nine seconds of continuous bear-repellent pepper spray with a range of up to 20 feet. Registered as effective against every type of bear on the planet, the Guard Alaska Bear Spray might give you a fighting chance against that polar bear you encounter on your next trip to the Arctic, but bring two canisters just to be safe. It comes with a nylon holster that attaches to your belt or shoulder strap.
4. Mace Brand Maximum Strength Bear Spray
Emptying in only six seconds, the Mace Brand Maximum Strength Bear Spray emits a powerful fog of extra-hot red pepper oil at a range of up to 35 feet, so you can knock any aggressive bear flat on its back. Pull off the orange safety wedge at the top, aim carefully, and unleash your fury. Holster sold separately.
5. SABRE Frontiersman Bear Spray
Rigorously tested and guaranteed to work against all bears, the SABRE Frontiersman Bear Spray is the number one selling maximum strength bear spray on the market. At 9.2 ounces, the SABRE Frontiersman Bear Spray delivers almost two ounces of high heat, grizzly-blinding pepper spray per second and can reach up to 35 feet. Best used in short bursts to ensure maximum accuracy, or go for a full-on canister-emptying assault and take that grizzly out of commission for the rest of the afternoon. Chest holster sold separately. Also available in 7.9 ounces.
That’s it for bear sprays. I don’t think I need to do any more convincing, but if I have failed, search “grizzly attack” on YouTube the night before your next trip into the Montana wilderness, and then hit up REI on your way out of town. It might save your life.